Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Book Life 22: Never Drink Your Rich Roommate's Champagne, or Rural Boy Goes Ivy League, A Semi-Tragedy (Plus One Awesome Chunk of News)

As a book geek of massive proportions, I have been suffering a deep blue funk over the closing of Borders. While I try to shop my local used bookstores for the most part, sometimes you gotta hit up the big shiny bookstore, you know? And Borders was the best of the ones I'm familiar with. I found the book I'm blogging on there in the bargain section slashed another 50% because my beloved Borders is going under. I'm glad to be able to afford a few books I've been wanting because they are so cheap, but I hate the reasons for it. But I digress...

Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overacheiver by Walter Kirn

If you are at all familiar with this blog, you know that I am from a low SES rural background (and continue to be) and have had some difficulties adjusting to life in a town seemingly stuffed with entitled, pretentious people. (My previous rantings on the subject can be found listed under the "poverty" tag in the cloud to your right.) So when I saw this book, I snatched it up immediately, thinking I'd found some wonderful if distant authorial soul mate. Eh, not really.

Though I enjoyed the read, I found myself constantly searching for the thing the title and blurb promised. I understand why he included early memories, because after all, it is a memoir. However, most of it didn't seem to click with the expectations an initial glance gives you. Once he arrived at Princeton, it appears with his first roommates, a snobby group of over-privileged people I wanted to smack and other classmates wandering about in the background of the narrative. It falls away again shortly thereafter only to resurface here and there in the second half of the book, in between drug addled hazes and what looks to be an exhaustion-based disconnection with reality. As I've said about many a memoir I have read, I was not there and can make no claims about what did and did not happen and how it affected the author. But in many places, it seemed less to be the overwhelming nature of being thrown into the company of a class he was unfamiliar with than his own preexisting issues.

Knowledge is a reckoning...a way to assess your location, your true position, not a strategy for improving your position. (p.23)

Having said that, I did find a few places in which I was nodding in agreement. It isn't that it was a bad or poorly conceived book. (I think more people from rural, low income areas/backgrounds need to express these things, hence the reason I am always ranting on about them and reading this book.) I simply think that if he wanted to write a memoir about his discombobulation and how he dealt with the upper class twilight zone he ended up in, he could have done a much better job. I wanted more of the actual conflict and how he proposed to combat it. I don't mean to give anything away, but at the end when he finds himself deeper in an upper class arena than before, he makes no mention of it. It's presented as a moment of "whoo hoo! I got this!" rather than what could prove to be a shove into an even more pretentious pit of vipers. I know he couldn't conceivably go on forever; a book must end somewhere, after all. I just wish he could have acknowledged the depth of the issue and the effects it would have on him in the future or even how it has affected him now that he's all grown up and distanced from the actual events.

In the end, if you're looking for a more eloquent and extensive discussion of the problems I ramble on about on occasion, this isn't exactly it, but read it anyway. It does have its moments.

And now for something you'll really like...

In other book related news, it pays to follow authors you like on Facebook. Why is that, you ask? Because sometimes they post interesting and awesome things. Take yesterday for example. Chuck Palahniuk posted an opportunity for bloggers: all you had to do was email Double Day with your blog and physical address for a chance to read and review his new book Damned before it hits shelves in October. As you may have surmised, I will be one of the lucky ones. It isn't as if I've become entitled to an exclusive audience with the book, but it is pretty darn cool nonetheless. I have no idea when it may arrive, but rest assured you will know when it does. Stay tuned.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Book Life 21: In Which I Ramble About the Abortive Ending of the Vampire Chronicles

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you have not read the last two Chronicles books, and do not want anything at all spoiled, do not read this. I despise spoilers, and would not want to ruin the experience for you.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've been rereading the Vampire Chronicles in their entirety which I don't think I've done since the last one was published. Oh, I pick up Body Thief or Memnoch occasionally, but this time I started at Interview and just finished the last page of Blood Canticle. Up through Blood and Gold, which is (finally) the full tale of the life of Marius, I remembered how much I loved the Chronicles. I am a self-avowed fan of Lestat and most of the books Anne Rice has written. I've read all of them, Mayfair series, Violin, Servant of the Bones, the erotica, etc. Anyway, I've been pondering what went wrong with Blackwood Farm and Blood Canticle, because most assuredly, something did go wrong.

It isn't that the final two books aren't well written. I'm pretty sure it is impossible for Anne to write badly (although I haven't read and don't plan to read her newest ones so they could be terrible for all I know). However, something changed with Memnoch, and the series slowly drifted apart from there. If you haven't read it, Memnoch tells the tale of Lestat being courted by the Devil himself and taken through the "true" history of creation, God, etc. Being the religion geek that I am, I liked this book a great deal. I took issue with some of the plot twists at the end, but all in all, I enjoyed it. After this you have The Vampire Armand, Pandora, Vittorio, Merrick, and Blood and Gold. Armand is a whiner, but it was a good read. Pandora and Vittorio are largely outside the realm of the Chronicles (with the exception of Pandora's involvement with Marius), but excellent books. Vittorio is beautiful and strange enough that I forgive its digression. Merrick is the first book in which Anne tried to meld the Vampires and the Mayfairs, but it works in this one. Merrick is distant enough from the Mayfair series that you don't get bogged down, and frankly I just loved the Voodoo in the story. Blood and Gold is oddly framed, but being that it is Marius, it's fine. Then the train wreck happens. The thread of the main Chronicles story gets lost somewhere in Armand, and since the next few books are digressions, it just drifts away entirely until she attempts to find it again in Blackwood Farm and Blood Canticle.

*Sigh* The problem with the last two books is that they really don't want to be part of the Chronicles. Were it not for the fact that Lestat frames the first and narrates the second, they would have no ties whatsoever and could be continuations of the Mayfair Witches (especially Canticle). Here's the issue: Anne broke with the Catholic Church years and years ago, and sometime just before Memnoch she began to reconcile with them, which intensely colored her writing. She began to to think of the Chronicles as "darkness" and even titled her fairly recent memoir Called Out of Darkness. She started the fictional accounts of Jesus' life (which on the whole are not terrible--again, religion geek) at this point, and even appeared on that horrific show The 700 Club (see my response to that HERE). Even more recently she has broken with the Church again, but kept her Christianity. But now I'm digressing a bit. The point is that this all affected her books immensely. If Memnoch wasn't enough to prove it to you, Lestat's philosophizing throughout Canticle should do it.

I think Anne felt some modicum of responsibility to her long time loyal fans to finish the series rather than drop it at Marius' tale, but rather than take the time to properly end it as it warranted, she decided to rush the job. Blackwood Farm seems to travel on an odd and twisty path that makes little sense at times, though it is, of course, beautifully written as always. Toward the end, we get another main character shoehorned into our little universe, and at first, she seems okay--one of those characters you can stomach but don't really grow to love. The first time I read this (and this time, because I didn't remember what happened) all I could hope was that Mona would fade out of the picture early into Canticle, though I knew she'd appear because of the way Anne structured the end of Blackwood Farm, ending it in the middle of Lestat making her a fledgling. How sadly wrong I was. In all the Anne Rice novels EVER, there has never been a major character that I didn't grow to love in some way--until Mona Mayfair. She is the most horrendous little monster, and it gets to the point that every time she opens her mouth you think you can't dislike her more. Then she proves you wrong. She effectively ruins most of Canticle for me.

Now, I have heard (a few) dissenting opinions. There are those that actually like Mona, though how I will never know, and I'm sure those people think Anne did a wonderful job closing out the Chronicles. I am not among them. She dispatches Merrick Mayfair into the great beyond with so little fanfare that it's insulting (both to the character and her readers) in order to tie up a major plot line in Farm. I mean, really, how in the hell did she justify that mess to herself? Merrick was a powerful enough witch and Voodoo priestess that she could have sent Goblin's soul into the light without flinging herself into the flames as well. Hell, she was aiming to do just that in Merrick with the ghost of Claudia. Just ridiculous. Then Canticle, instead of truly focusing on Lestat, as the last of the series should have done in my opinion, she centers it on Mona's involvement with the Taltos (from the Mayfair Witches trilogy) and her unending ability to be one of the biggest bitches in christendom (oh, and Lestat's inexplicable obsession with Rowan Mayfair). Most of a few chapters in the middle are her being bitchy, Lestat getting angry at her, and Quinn being the go between. It was unbearably tedious. Frankly, he should have let her die on her bower of flowers in Quinn's bed at the end of Farm and saved us all the trouble.

In the final analysis, what I think happened is that Anne felt she needed to give her fans an ending to the Chronicles and (for some unknown reason) one to the Witches as well, so she threw them in her mental blender and voila! She used Farm to shove Mona into the picture, giving the Mayfairs a reasonable claim on story space, and then she used Canticle to play out the end of the Taltos saga. I might not be so aggravated by all this if she didn't attempt to call them both Chronicle books. Had she simply been honest and presented them as a bizarre (and wholly unnecessary) extension of the Mayfairs, I would at least have known what I was walking into: A hot mess, but at least a properly categorized one.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Waxing Poetic, the Second: I Could Totally Be His Groupie, or In Love with People I've Never Met

I stumbled across this poem while searching something else this morning, and of course, I fell in love with it as I do all of Alexie's work. Right now I'm in the middle of rereading the Vampire Chronicles again, but I think I may be working my way through all of Alexie's books again after this. I swear I could just fall into his books and poetry and live there under his ash-blasted skies and strange sun. I've told Anna before that if he ever showed up at our front door, I would not be held responsible for my actions. Of course, all he would have to do is read me his poetry all night...

Go, Ghost, Go by Sherman Alexie

At this university upon a hill,

I meet a tenured professor

Who's strangely thrilled

To list all of the oppressors --

Past, present, and future -- who have killed.

Are killing, and will kill the indigenous.

O, he names the standard suspects --

Rich, white, and unjust --

And I, a red man, think he's correct,

But why does he have to be so humorless?

And how can he, a white man, fondly speak

Of the Ghost Dance, the strange and cruel


That, if performed well, would have doomed

All white men to hell, destroyed their colonies,

And brought back every dead Indian to life?

The professor says, "Brown people

From all brown tribes

Will burn skyscrapers and steeples.

They'll speak Spanish and carry guns and knives.

Sherman, can't you see that immigration

Is the new and improved Ghost Dance?"

All I can do is laugh and laugh

And say, "Damn, you've got some imagination.

You should write a screenplay about this shit --

About some fictional city,

Grown fat and pale and pretty,

That's destroyed by a Chicano apocalypse."

The professor doesn't speak. He shakes his head

And assaults me with his pity.

I wonder how he can believe

In a ceremony that requires his death.

I think that he thinks he's the new Jesus.

He's eager to get on that cross

And pay the ultimate cost

Because he's addicted to the indigenous.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Jesus Rede?: In Which a Pagan Considers the Seeming Impossibility of Christo-Paganism

Quite frequently, I stumble onto a topic that fascinates me, and then I devote inordinate amounts of time and energy pulling it apart. This is how the entire Quiverfull honors thesis occurred. Last night I watched The 19th Wife, a murder mystery about fundamentalist Mormons in polygamist marriages, and it sparked the long ignored desire to learn more about Mormonism in general. I already have the list of books ready. By the same token, a search for a long-forgotten novel about witches in a swamp randomly pulled up a list of books about, of all things, Christian Paganism. After posting a short status on it on Facebook, there ensued a civilized discussion about and wondering over the topic. Of course, someone interjected that they believe that the amalgamation is a natural progression for someone raised in a Christian background, then stated the use of statues of the Virgin Mary in some Pagan ritual. *sigh*

Okay, I have a small Mary on my altar. While I spent my youth among the pews of various Protestants, I was never really Catholic, but I recognize that Mary is truly an altered version of the Goddesses of old. She was the Christian face of Isis and Cerridwen and so many others, and this is why she sits among Kwan Yin and Ganesha and my dragons on the polished wood. Not because she represents some connection with a faith that I have long abandoned. When I stepped away from Christianity, I stepped away. Now maybe that was my own particular experience. Maybe no other ex-Christians/current Pagans had this experience, but I know this isn't true. I've met too many who went through the exact same thing. In addition to all this, I for one have quite a large amount of respect for most of the teachings of the man who was Jesus. I think he did exist, but that he was simply a brilliant philosopher much like the Buddha or many other before and since. I don't worship him on my particular altar, but I see how some Pagans could include him in their own worship--at least the teachings of love, not the idea of him as the son of the Christian God.

Having said all that, here's what I really think: there is no way to truly mesh Paganism in any form with Christianity. The Christian religion, at its heart, is based around the notion that God required a bloody human sacrifice in order to redeem humankind of its sins. This is antithetical to everything I've ever learned about Paganism in general. Our Goddesses and Gods do not require, do not ask for blood on their altars, and we do not need to go crawling on our knees for forgiveness for "sins." Whatever we do, we do. I have gone to the Goddess and God to ask for help in overcoming the faults that caused me to make some error, but never for forgiveness. That is something I must give to myself. In any case, my point is how is it possible to wed a religion drenched from its very beginning in blood to one opposed to such things. Yes, I plan on delving into the books written by those in the various Christo-Pagan traditions in order to see what they say about their own faith, but I am at a complete loss to even begin to fathom how they convince themselves this works.

If there are any Christo-Pagans/Trinitarians/etc. reading, please feel free to contact me with your own explanations. I am truly interested, despite my utter lack of faith in the possibility.

P.S. For those who call themselves "Christian Witches," how exactly do you gloss over the injunction of "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live."?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Book Life 20: Vampires and Philosophy, or Lessons Mema Taught Me

Some of you are going to laugh at me; I accept this. It has happened before, trust me. My own beautiful, loving wife thinks me utterly mad, as does at least one of my oldest friends, but oh, well...having said that, here we go.

I am one of those people who believe that, yes, one person can change the world. It may be one tiny action at a time, but it is possible. I have always believed this, taught at the knee of my Mema that every nice thing you do means something. She never said the exact words, "you can change the world one act of kindness at a time," but that's damn well what she taught me. Small acts of respect and kindness are sometimes seen as simply good manners, especially in the South, but for those lucky few of us brought up by people like my Mema, we know that it's more. It's the only way that we can affect any positive change in the world.

What brings this up, you ask? I've been rereading Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles and just finished The Tale of the Body Thief. So what? Completely unrelated? Not so! If you've never read it, this is a story of astral projection, human and vampire nature, and the very nature of good in the universe. In this novel as in none of the others of the series (save perhaps Memnoch the Devil) does Lestat wax quite so philosophical. He ponders the nature of his soul when anchored in human and vampire flesh and the ideas of good and evil as affected by souls in those two spheres. In one particular section, Lestat is discussing the work of Rembrandt and his theories on his life and art.

With each portrait he understood the grace and goodness of mankind ever more deeply. He understood the capacity for compassion and wisdom which resides in every soul...At last the faces Rembrandt painted were not flesh-and-blood faces at all. They were spiritual countenances, portraits of what lay within the body of the man or the woman; they were visions of what the person was at his or her finest hour, of what they stood to become...[His many self-portraits] were his personal plea to God to note the progress of this man, who, through his close observation of others like him, had been completely religiously transformed. "This is my vision," said Rembrandt to God. (The Tale of the Body Thief, 36)

The first time I read this, I was consumed in relief that at least one other person (Anne Rice through her creation) felt the same as I: that the true nature of humanity is goodness and compassion and love, though it may be hard to see at times. All humans have the capacity to love and do good, though some, for whatever reasons, do not show it. And it is for this reason it is so important to do good and kind things. Sometimes, I think, it is enough to let others know that kindness still exists. In some cases, that may be enough to keep that tiny spark of humanity glowing, and it has always been my opinion that once someone is shown true kindness that they will feel compelled in some way to show this to others. Here again, Lestat (and Rice) and I agree.

What a miracle, I thought. One tiny flame could make so many other flames; one tiny flame could set afire a whole world. Why, I had, with this simple gesture, actually increased the sum total of light in the universe, had I not? (The Tale of the Body Thief, 116)
He is literally speaking of candles here, but taken in the greater context, it's easy to extend that to actions in the world. I think Mema would have liked this part of Lestat; unfortunately, the whole blood drinking thing may have constituted a problem.